Natalie Mitlyansky, DC, ND, MD

Fish Oil Versus Flax Seed Oil

Fish Oil versus Flax Seed Oil – Which is the Better?

For strict vegans, the answer is clear: flax seed oil. For the rest of us, there are some pros and cons on both sides.

Benefits of eating fish

Numerous authorities have talk about benefits of eating fish, especially fatty fish which is a source of Omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild salmon, sardines, mackerel.
Omega-3 Fatty acid has an anti-inflammatory property, and now we know that cause of all chronic diseases is chronic inflammation, so having Omega-3 fatty acid in your diet may prevent cardio-vascular diseases, osteoarthritis, depression. Omega-3 fatty acid can lower your triglycerides, total and bad-LDL cholesterol, prevent platelet aggregation- prevent blood clots formation. We need Omega-3 fatty acid for brain function and development, that why it is so important for the pregnant women and nursing mothers to have good quality fish in the diet.

Risks of eating fish

Concerns have grown during the past several decades about toxic contamination in fish. Some claim that benefits overweight the risks. However, the FDA official advice is not to eat fish more then twice per week. This limit is especially important for pregnant women and young children because these toxins can impair neurological development.
Contaminants in fish can include mercury, other heavy metals including arsenic, industrial byproducts such dioxins, PCBs, pesticides such as DDT.
Levels of specific contaminants vary by species, and whether the fish are wild or farmed.
For example, mercury is lowest in wild salmon and highest in sword fish.

Average mercury concentration in various fish and shellfish

Sword fish-0.97
Albacore tuna-0.35
American lobster-0.31
Chunk light tuna-0.12

Source: Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, Food and drug Administration.

Human body has deal with contaminants, but unfortunately the speed of getting in those toxins much higher then the body’s ability to eliminate them, so levels build up. For example, it takes more then one year for mercury levels to drop significantly, for some fat-soluble pollutants it takes as much as ten years to reduce the load by half.
Many fish oil supplements do not contain those contaminants-as evidenced by ConsumerLab .com, Consumer Reports and other independent testing organizations. However, some supplements were found to be contaminated, especially from the countries whose production standards are not rigorous.
Look for the quality seals on the label. Both NSF and NNFA quality seals mean that product does not contain heavy metals. In order to qualify for the NSF and NNFA quality seals, any claims on the label that the product does not contain any contaminants must be supported by independent laboratory tests.
Given these concerns many people wondering whether they should continue taking fish oil or relay on flax seed oil.

Is fish oil “better” then flax seed oil?

In one respect fish oil is definitely better then flax seed oil because it contains EPA and DHA –two most important omega-3 fatty acids.
The body uses EPA to create anti-inflammatory substances, uses DHA and EPA for brain function-8% of the brain is composed from EPA and DHA. So, taking fish oil can guarantee that body gets enough of these two vital omegas. Better to use oils that were not refined, not bleached and heated, because as a result of this manufacturing techniques fish oil contains 0.5-1.00% of highly toxic compounds. If you want to use oils that were not bleached, heated and refined look for the cold-pressed or unrefined on the products label.

Benefits of flax seed oil

Flax seed oil contains ALA- alpha –linolenic acid , body needs it and can not make it by itself. The body can use ALA in order to make other omega-3 fatty acids and body will make as much as needed.

Is flax oil is better then fish oil?

Not necessarily. The body uses specific enzymes to convert ALA into Omega-3 fatty acids. Activity of these enzymes depends on age, level of stress, presence of chronic diseases. In order to make sufficient amounts of EPA and DHA, one needs to take 5-6 times more ALA then if he relies on fish oil alone.
Another consideration is that ALA competes metabolically with LA-Linoleic Acid, which is a precursor for the synthesis of Omega-6 fatty acid. It means that if LA oversupplied in the diet, body uses LA more then ALA, as a result it makes more pro-inflammatory chemicals and has more chronic inflammation.
Unfortunately, Americans use more vegetable oils then before, so we have 10:1 ratio between LA and ALA in the American diet. The best method to improve this ratio is to switch to monounsaturated oil, such is olive oil.

How much do we need?

For healthy adults, the recommendation is 300-500mg per day of EPA and DHA, plus additional 800-1100mg of ALA. So it is usually 180mg of EPA and 120 mg of DHA in 1 softgel capsule of fish oil containing 1000mg of fish oil. For people with osteoarthritis, cardio-vascular disease it is recommended to have twice more, but people with congestive heart failure should consult with their doctor and do not take high doses of omega-3 supplementation due to possible toxicity.
Cod liver oil is a potent source of EPA/DHA, containing as much as 1000-1200mg in one tablespoon, but it is also a concentrated source of fat soluble vitamins A and D, which may be toxic in high doses.
In conclusion
Both fish oil and flax oil have benefits and potential drawbacks. Fish oil is excellent and usually not contaminated source of EPA and DHA, which the body uses to make “calming”omega-3 fatty acids and keep the brain healthy. Flax seed oil contains ALA and can make all the omega-3 fatty acids that it needs. The body needs ALA to make other omega-3 s, even when it gets enough EPA and DHA from fish oil.
In conclusion, why limit oneself, it is better to have both? Eating a modest amount of fish or getting fish oil and EPA with DHA from supplements and adding flax oil in the diet ensures a healthy intake of ALA.

Dr Peter Everett, Founder of the Dietary Supplement Quality Initiative.
American Heart association “New Guidelines Focus on Fish Oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids.”
FDA: Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition : “What You Need To Know About Mercury In Fish and Shellfish”.
Food and Nutritional Board of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of science. “Consumers Need Better Guidance to Fully Weight Possible Benefits and Risks When Making seafood Choices”.
Julie J. Rehmeyer. “Salmon Safety”. Science News.

I personally take fish oil and now considering adding flax seed oil to my supplementation. In my practice I use Tuna Omega, Cod Liver Oil and Linum-B6 ( which is flax seed oil) from Standard Process. All supplements used by patients after NRT-Nutrition Response Testing where I use muscle testing in order to determine need for particular supplement and daily dose.
If you have any questions, call our office at 610-277-3430 for free consultation.

Dr Natalie